Building a Local Smarter State in the UK, Post-Pandemic

Robert Stoneman, Principal Analyst for local government at GlobalData, analyzes the key messages from the second day of techUK’s “Building the Smarter State” conference.

Day two of techUK’s flagship conference for 2020 took on a decidedly local theme compared to the day before, with the response of local public sector organizations firmly in the spotlight. With close to 130 attendees, and despite moving online in the current circumstances, the conference continued to be an industry-leading forum with a range of high-caliber speakers detailing the latest developments in public service ICT.

Kris Burtwistle, Head of UK Local Government at sponsors AWS, kicked day two off by summarizing some of their work with local authorities and introducing many of the key themes of the day. This included highlighting the rapidity with which councils embraced home working during lockdown, citing how the London Borough of Waltham Forest moved many its contact center staff to home working in just a matter of days.

The opening keynote saw Paul Maltby, Chief Digital Officer at the Ministry of Housing, Communities, and Local Government (MHCLG), outline the work of the department’s Local Digital Collaboration Unit, which aims to drive further collaboration across the sector. He rightly argued that while collaboration remains challenging, it is achievable and that the growing experience of the sector should be a catalyst for developing further arrangements. Frustratingly, he was not able to introduce any major new plans ahead of this year’s Comprehensive Spending Review, but hopefully some will be on the horizon shortly.

Paul also reiterated the importance of getting new digital services up and running as quickly as possible, though he warned against simply tinkering around the edges. Real business change is only going to come from looking at the core, mission-critical systems that all councils rely on, and making sure technology and data are at the heart of the services they help deliver. It is encouraging that every speaker at the conference echoed this theme. That said, going into a cash-strapped post-COVID world, it will be challenging for many councils, especially those tied in to large and expensive contracts.

At the headline panel, all three delegates reiterated the challenges of public sector collaboration. Data protection was highlighted by Katy Bourne, Police and Crime Commissioner for Sussex, as especially challenging across criminal justice. Insufficient governance and poor strategic leadership were also cited, though not all delegates agreed on how best to tackle this. Matthew Cain, Head of Digital and Data at Hackney Council, advocated a ‘bottom-up’ approach – build a good tool or service and others will use it – whereas Mark Gannon, Director of Business Change and Information Solutions at Sheffield City Council, felt the focus had to be on aligning strategic leadership at the top. In the end, they agreed to meet in the middle, which is probably for the best.

A further takeaway focused on digital skills and culture. Mark pointed out that, although the pandemic “short-circuited” discussions over the benefits of remote working, much of the hard work on changing the Council’s working culture still needed to be done if the benefits were to be realized long-term. Echoing the keynote speaker, there was also agreement over the importance of focussing on rapid and iterative change – avoiding “moonshots” as Matthew put it – and joining up digital services to improve the end-user experience.

The final panel also touched on the important role of AI and automation in the response to the pandemic. Peter Tolland, Head of Directorate Programmes at the Scottish Government, remarked his “surprise” at how important he believes these will be moving forward, though further discussions are needed around how data is stored and used ethically. Mark Adams-Wright, Director at Socitm, cautioned automation would have some limits where services require some form of human interaction, such as in social care, though he agreed all service lines could benefit in some way. Offering a perspective from the remotest part of the UK, Jon Shepherd, Head of ICT and Digital Transformation at the Highland Council, remarked that digital services had been widely embraced by the public. Crucially, it also created the capacity needed to deliver highly localized services targeting the most vulnerable and digitally isolated.

Overall, day two of Building the Smarter State did a good job of highlighting local government’s tremendous work in these unprecedented times. It is especially encouraging to hear sector leaders understand the importance of not going back to the pre-COVID world, and the importance of driving further collaboration. However, whether that momentum can be carried forward across the sector remains to be seen. Further upheaval is ahead now that the proposed Devolution White Paper – and the possibility of the greatest structural change to the sector in a generation – is just months away. As Mathew Cain pointed out, the coming months represent “a phenomenal opportunity to remake public bodies”, but organizations need to make sure practical concerns such as contractual arrangements are addressed so that it not “the equivalent of two knackered cars being melded together.”


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